The Spectre of Social Counter-Revolution

5th Dr. BR Ambedkar Memorial Lecture, Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, New Delhi, September 27, 2014


I would like to use this occasion to dwell upon a point to which Dr Ambedkar had drawn attention in his closing speech to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949.  In that speech he had underscored a basic contradiction that he saw emerging in modern India: on the one hand the Constitution which he was commending to the Assembly (and which was eventually adopted) enshrined political democracy based on universal adult franchise, equality before law, and a set of fundamental rights, and hence envisaged the formation of a fraternity of equal citizens; but the polity that was to be fashioned in accordance with this conception had as its basis a social structure characterised by the institutionalised inequality of the caste system.  Equality in the realm of the polity in other words was to be superimposed upon an unequal socio-economic structure; and Dr Ambedkar had emphasised that the continuance of the democratic structure depended upon “the establishment of equality and fraternity in all spheres of life” (emphasis added).  It required that the equality instituted in the realm of the polity should become generalised to other spheres of social existence as well.

India’s adoption of a Constitution enshrining equality in the realm of the polity, given that its society had been marked by millennia of institutionalised inequality in the form of the caste system, was an event of outstanding historic significance.  This leap became possible in my view by the two great movements that swept the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the social emancipation movement, led by Phule, Periyar, Shree Narayana Guru and Ambedkar, on the one hand; and the anti-colonial struggle in its diverse hues on the other.

These two movements are usually viewed as being unconnected with one another, or even antithetical to one another.  But I believe that there was a dialectical relationship between the two: the social emancipation struggle inculcated, among the socially-oppressed sections of the people, “an urge for self-realisation”, to use Ambedkar’s term, of which participation in the anti-colonial struggle became an expression; at the same time the anti-colonial struggle would not have acquired the sweep it did, if it did not place before the country the vision of a new India of “equal citizens”, which was articulated for instance in the Karachi Congress Resolution of 1931.

This twin upsurge constituted India’s “Long Revolution” whose manifestation was the adoption of a Constitution that instituted a polity of equal citizens.  But the contradiction underlying this also meant that either one of two things would come to pass: either the socio-economic inequalities would get progressively reduced, as Ambedkar had wanted, so that the equality instituted in the realm of the polity got generalised to other spheres, thus carrying forward the “Long revolution”; or, the socio-economic inequalities would continue and gather momentum to a point where they effectively subverted the equality of the realm of the polity, thus unleashing a social counter-revolution against the “Long Revolution” that had been witnessed in the country.  I regret to say that in my view we have been moving in this latter direction in contemporary India, whence the title of my present lecture.

Not a day passes these days without our reading about some utterly horrendous atrocities against the dalits somewhere in the country.  It may be argued that this is a result only of improved reporting of such atrocities rather than of any actually increased incidence of them, but I doubt it.  Besides, plenty of other indicators exist which suggest that such a social counter-revolution has been underway; and even the current attempt to dilute the MGNREGS is in conformity with this tendency.  I shall not however go into a specific discussion of this issue here.  Instead I would just mention two inescapable general facts.

First, a social counter-revolution invariably constitutes an integral whole; the counter-revolution witnessed in any particular terrain is associated with a similar regression in other terrains as well.  It follows therefore that the very fact of the strengthening of “communal fascism”, of anti-Muslim actions and sentiments, which indubitably characterises contemporary India, and which is equally indubitably contrary to the institution of a polity of equal citizens, also represents ipso facto a strengthening of attitudes that are regressive for the emancipation of other oppressed sections as well, eg, the women, the dalits, the ethnic minorities and others.

Secondly, the question of the transcendence of the caste system as a whole has disappeared completely from all socio-political discourse now, which itself is to my mind indicative of a social counter-revolution.  Attention in contemporary India is almost entirely focussed, at best, upon improving the condition of the dalits, with specific measures designed to effect this being the subject of debate, rather than upon the annihilation of the caste system itself.  The very discourse in other words has shifted away from a transcendence of the caste system for the realisation of a “fraternity of equals”, towards ameliorating at best the condition of the oppressed within the prevailing social structure.  This shift in discourse itself, to my mind, represents retrogression.

This assertion may appear odd to some.  As long as there is no specific oppression of the dalits why should the caste system in general, they would ask, be a threat to the existence of a polity of equal citizens?  I shall discuss a liberal answer to this question and a Marxist answer.  These two, I must emphasize, differ from one another in their methodological perspective, not necessarily in their empirical premises.


The liberal answer, given by Adam Smith himself, stresses the more or less equal capacities of all individuals.  In a famous passage in The Wealth of Nations Smith had written:

The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour.  The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education.  When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference.  About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations.  The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance.  (Smith, 1937, Book I, ch 2)

Smith’s position here is the diametrical opposite of the ideology of the caste system; and it would follow from this position that in the absence of any systematic difference in the inclinations of the different caste-groups (which there is no reason to expect), if we find that their representations in different occupations are vastly different, with some caste-groups alone providing the “philosophers” while others are to be found predominantly among the ranks of the “porters”, then the cause for it must lie in systematic exclusions, which are both incompatible with, and cannot for long accommodate, a “community of equals” in the realm of the polity.  A community of equals in the realm of the polity in short must negate the practice of any discrimination and exclusion in the socio-economic realm, such as what the caste-system embodies.  From the Smithian position what follows is not only an ethical rejection of the caste-system, but also the conclusion that equality in the realm of the polity is incompatible with the inequality of the caste system in the socio-economic realm.

The Marxist position on the other hand is based on an altogether different perspective.  Its point of departure is the quest for human freedom which requires an overcoming of the generalised alienation rooted in a system of commodity production based on private property.  Such a system has immanent tendencies acting as an external coercive force upon all members of society, including even the capitalists who are supposed to be the “heroes” of the system.  Overcoming this alienation requires a collective effort.  The fraternity of equals that comes into being for making this effort is therefore not just an ethically desirable entity, but a subject of history-in-the-making.  Anything that fragments the coming into being of this collective subject, that divides the oppressed along caste, ethnic or religious lines, is an impediment to human emancipation.  The annihilation of caste therefore is not just for the self-realisation of the dalits, or for the freedom only of the oppressed; it is necessary for everyone’s freedom.

Since society does not remain frozen in any one particular state, if there is no progress towards human emancipation, if the “community” that is to consciously shape history is not in the making through the overcoming of caste and other divisions that keep it fragmented, then not only would this fragmentation persist, but it would get accentuated, especially in periods of “spontaneously” generated economic crises.  If the “long social revolution” does not move forward, then it would not just remain frozen, marking time, but would inevitably regress into a social counter-revolution.

Thus no matter which perspective we adopt, and one can see traces of both perspectives in Ambedkar, the transcendence of the caste system becomes an essential item on the historical agenda.


In fact against the realisation of Ambedkar’s vision, of the equality instituted in the realm of the polity getting generalised into the socio-economic structure as a whole, there were two impediments: one of course, as we have seen, was the strength and resilience of the caste system itself that would stubbornly refuse to be transcended; the other was the adoption of the capitalist path of development.

This latter assertion may cause surprise to some.  Capitalism is generally supposed to be a “modernising force” which destroys the pre-existing structures of exploitation, bondage and inequality.  And even though it creates a new system of exploitation and wage slavery, which itself both presupposes and breeds inequality, it does so on an altogether fresh soil.  It first creates the “individual”, who constitutes the agency under free competition, out of the pre-existing “community” that had been subject to feudal (in our case feudal-colonial) exploitation.  The idea of capitalism strengthening the inherited socio-economic structure and hence the pre-existing social inequality, instead of setting “free” the “individual”, who, though actually alienated and unfree, represents an entirely new phenomenon, would therefore appear odd at first sight.

But there is a big difference between the experience of the metropolitan and third world economies in this respect.  What is usually seen as an intrinsic characteristic of capitalism, namely its destroying the pre-existing “community” of the feudal system, a characteristic that, many believe, would repeat itself wherever capitalism makes an appearance, was actually a specific experience of Western European capitalism that could never be repeated elsewhere.  It is not that capitalism itself necessarily always destroys the pre-existing “community”, but it did so in the specific historical context of Western Europe because of the possibility of mass emigration to the temperate regions at the expense of the local inhabitants.  As many as fifty million Europeans migrated to the temperate regions, to the “new world” of Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand during the “long nineteenth century” stretching to the first world war.

Migration meant that those displaced from their traditional occupations by the encroachment of capitalism did not have to be absorbed, leaving aside a relatively small reserve army of labour, within the domestic capitalist sector itself; they could simply migrate abroad where they displaced the local inhabitants, took over their land and set up as independent farmers or got absorbed into other occupations for which such proliferation of independent farming generated a demand, directly or indirectly.

And this fact itself facilitated and hastened the disintegration of the old order.  Had this possibility of migration not existed, the capitalist squeeze on the old economic system would not have led to its disintegration; it would have made the petty producers in the old system merely cut into their subsistence and sink into greater penury without abandoning their traditional occupations.  And in such a case the social structure within which they existed would also have continued.

In third world countries where there is no such emigration possibility for displaced petty producers, the encroachment of capitalism, while driving them to ever degraded living conditions, does not result in a disintegration of the old social structure.  Capitalism does not necessarily act as a harbinger of modernity in the sense of “freeing” the “individual” through a destruction of the old social order.

It is noteworthy here that the “de-industrialisation” caused by the displacement of traditional craftsmen through the encroachment of metropolitan capitalism in the colonial period simply resulted in a swelling of the labour reserves and the generation of modern mass poverty, without in any way undermining the old caste-based feudal social structure.  Exactly in the same way, the encroachment by capitalism upon the traditional economy in the post-colonial period, even when this capitalism is located domestically rather than in the metropolis, does not destroy the pre-existing social structure.  This is because it does not create enough job opportunities for the displaced producers, at a time when migration possibilities to the rest of the world do not exist on the same scale as earlier for metropolitan countries.

Capitalism in societies like ours therefore does not enact the same scenario as got enacted in the metropolis.  Its so-called “revolutionary” role in destroying the old social structure remains constricted.  And to the extent that those squeezed petty producers who leave their traditional occupations to seek employment in cities are unable to find it, the size of the reserve army of labour increases relative to the active army.

This has two important consequences: first, the two armies, the active army and the reserve army, do not remain as two distinct and separate entities.  Rather, there is a proliferation of “part-time”, “casual”, “informal” and “intermittent” employment, which basically means that “employment rationing” does not take the form of some workers being fully employed but not others (as in the standard picture of two armies), but of most workers being semi-employed.  This reduces the scope for trade union activity, keeps the workers in a state of abject subjugation, and restricts the possibility of radical politics.

Secondly, it has the effect of spawning a large lumpen proletariat and a whole range of activities where such a lumpen proletariat is typically engaged.  Mao Zedong in his famous essay “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society” had already drawn attention to the fact that in pre-revolutionary China, displaced peasants, finding insufficient employment in cities, became part of a lumpen proletariat.  The same tendency increasingly characterises contemporary third world capitalism: capitalist encroachment brings an acute squeeze to traditional petty producers, but does not, even when it is associated with high rates of GDP growth, create sufficient job opportunities, because of which a burgeoning lumpen proletariat is created and there is an increasing “lumpenisation” of society.

The capitalism developing in societies like ours is therefore very different from what had developed in the metropolis in its heyday.  On the one hand it does not destroy the old social structure as had happened in the metropolis; on the other hand it causes substantial unemployment in cities, which is camouflaged in various ways, and consequently a progressive “lumpenisation” of society.

Caste consciousness, caste contradictions, and caste conflict, under these circumstances, far from disappearing, as one would expect with the growth of capitalism, have a tendency to become even more acute than before, to the detriment of the socially oppressed.  In other words, the capitalism developing in societies like ours not only does not destroy the old social structure and thereby obliterate caste consciousness and caste contradictions, but it actually has a tendency to strengthen them to the detriment of the socially oppressed, whence I use the term “social counter-revolution”.

This tendency is kept somewhat in check during the dirigiste period, the period presided over by a “Nehruvian State”, when affirmative action undertaken within the State sector that has a certain preponderance in the economy tries to restrict caste-based inequalities, and the commitment to the public provisioning of services like health and education, together with some succour to the poor in ways that are often contemptuously dismissed as “populist” by middle class publicists, provide a degree of relief to the dalits and depressed segments of the population.  But with the advent of neo-liberalism which unleashes once again the “spontaneous tendencies” of capitalism within the specific environment in which it operates, the social counter-revolution gathers momentum.


There are four obvious ways in which social inequalities get exacerbated under neo-liberalism.  The first is a general one.  When capitalism does not destroy the old social structure but is built upon it, those who are already in a privileged position within the pre-existing structure have an advantage over others who are excluded.  The “spontaneous” tendency of such a trajectory of capitalist development therefore is to exacerbate social inequalities.  Those who have private means, greater access to education and means of production are better placed to garner the gains of “development” for themselves compared to the economically disadvantaged who also typically tend to be socially marginalised.

No doubt under the dirigiste regime, as we have seen, there is some offsetting to this tendency through affirmative action and other means of succour for the poor.  But with the growing privatisation of the economy these lose their effectiveness; and this is my second point.  Since affirmative action is not enforced upon the private sector in the era of neo-liberalism, for fear of destroying the “capitalists’ incentives” (or dampening their “animal spirits”), it loses its effectiveness in alleviating social inequality, even when it remains legally in force in public institutions.  Likewise, the privatisation of services like education and health which makes them far more expensive and hence out of reach for the poor, among whom the socially oppressed are concentrated, leads to an increase not just in economic but also in social inequality.

Thirdly, in a situation of pervasive unemployment, the rationing of employment occurs in ways that invoke and hence strengthen pre-existing social ties, and hence strengthen caste connections, caste consciousness, and, given the already existing pattern of caste-dominance, caste inequality as well.  This is not to say that the old dominant castes continue being dominant in the new situation without any challenge to them.  Representative democracy does mean that certain caste coalitions are formed through which typically the intermediate castes, which have numerical strength, acquire a certain upward social mobility.  But the most oppressed sections are the ones which lose out in this regime of “employment-rationing” (which gets linked to a more general pattern of “patronage rationing”).

Two points have to be noted in this context.  One, caste of course is not the only factor affecting the “employment rationing rule”.  All kinds of other solidarities, such as ethnic, linguistic, regional, or even village ties, also enter the picture (though I suspect that they do not over-rule caste and communal differences, in the sense that an upper caste person from a particular region is unlikely to offer employment in such a “rationing” situation to a dalit or a Muslim from the same region in preference to another person with whom he has no special ties of any sort).  Even in Satyajit Ray’s film Mahanagar, it may be recalled, the protagonist is promised a job by his wife’s “boss” because both of them are from Pabna (and that film long predates the introduction of neo-liberalism which has made “employment rationing” even more acute)!  The point is that all kinds of pre-existing ties, especially caste ties, acquire prominence when things are “left to the market”, because, paradoxically, “employment rationing” becomes even tighter under such a regime owing to the faster labour productivity growth it generates, and hence the slower employment growth, even when the GDP growth under it is higher.

The other point is the following: it may be argued by some that the oppressed castes too can form coalitions for making some gains in this situation, in which case “employment rationing” within a framework of formal democracy does not necessarily work to the detriment of the oppressed castes, even when, instead of obliterating caste, it actually strengthens caste consciousness and caste conflict.  But even if this argument is accepted, the burden of exclusion that the oppressed castes suffer is so heavy, and the overcoming of it requires such a massive effort from the State (which is impossible under neo-liberalism), that any such strategy of forming coalitions for advancement within a neo-liberal regime still leaves the bulk of the socially oppressed castes as excluded as before.

The fourth factor impinging on caste contradictions in a neo-liberal economic regime arises from the tendency of this regime to get into crises and periods of prolonged stagnation.  Growth under a neo-liberal regime depends essentially upon the formation of “bubbles” in asset prices.  When such bubbles get formed, especially in the economy of the United States, which is the leading capitalist power in the world, the entire world capitalist system, and with it Indian capitalism as well, experiences high growth.  In addition, there may be domestic bubbles which also add to the growth performance based upon world capitalist booms.  But when such bubbles collapse, growth also collapses and stagnation sets in until a new bubble gets formed, which is exactly what the current experience of the world economy, and of the Indian economy too, demonstrates.

Whenever crisis and stagnation set in, the need for the system to manage politically the contradictions they generate becomes acute.  And such political management is effected typically by pitting the middle classes against the poor, the intermediate castes against the oppressed castes, and the majority religious community against the minority community.  All these stratagems seek to divide the potential opponents of the hegemony of the corporate-financial oligarchy that constitutes the dominant force in a neo-liberal regime.  The fact of all these divisions being simultaneously promoted underscores the point made earlier about the integrity of the social counter-revolution.  And these divisive stratagems constitute steps in the direction of fascism.

The political support of the middle class, some of whose members are beneficiaries of the neo-liberal regime, and others hopeful of following in their footsteps, is crucial for the sustenance of this regime.  Presenting the crisis of neo-liberalism as being caused only because of “corruption” (whose prevalence is detached from neo-liberalism) or because of “populist policies” (which are often portrayed as a variant of “corruption”) prevents any middle class disaffection with the neo-liberalism and keeps alive middle class hopes for better times around the corner in the event of the victory of an anti-“populist” political formation.  Likewise, the anti-poor rhetoric which merges with an anti-dalit rhetoric becomes attractive to the intermediate castes who are both hostile to the dalits and opposed to schemes like the MGNREGS that are perceived to increase the assertiveness of rural labourers.  And communal fascism of course has always had a soil in post-independence India.  Altogether therefore an anti-poor, anti-dalit and anti-Muslim agenda becomes an effective instrument for countering any challenge to the hegemony of the corporate-financial oligarchy in the context of the economic crisis of neo-liberalism.

But it is not a matter of political management alone.  To the extent that the challenge to the hegemony of the corporate-financial oligarchy is warded off, and on the contrary the need to boost their “animal spirits” is presented as being essential for overcoming the crisis, and to the extent that “populist pampering” of the poor is presented as a cause of the crisis, it becomes easier to push the corporate agenda even more ruthlessly.  The process of dispossession of the tribal population in the name of locating “development projects” in areas inhabited by them becomes easier; the process of restricting trade unions in the name of the resumption of “development” becomes easier.  In short, the “development” agenda, which is a pro-corporate agenda, gets further boosted through the ushering in of the social counter-revolution.  The crisis becomes the occasion for heightened caste antagonism and a means of exacerbating socio-economic inequality.

It may be thought that since in the absence of a new bubble (whose effects too would at best be temporary) the crisis would persist, this very fact would make people realize the absurdity of the argument that justifies an increase in socio-economic inequality as a panacea for economic distress.  It may be thought that they would reject social counter-revolution when they see its futility as a means of ushering in economic “development”.  It may be thought that the steps towards fascism would be reversed when fascism fails to produce the “development” it had promised.

This however is erroneous for at least two reasons.  First, in a caste-ridden society, a social counter-revolution has its own intrinsic appeal to a segment of the population, irrespective of whether it produces an economic revival.  And secondly, the very disillusionment with the political forces that promised “development” but did not achieve it would make these forces resort to even more divisive and hence socially counter-revolutionary measures.  In other words, “false consciousness” when it is demonstrated to be “false” does not spontaneously reverse itself; it does not spontaneously lead to the achievement of “true” consciousness.  It gets manipulated so that it persists and is further exacerbated.  What is required therefore is an alternative agenda for struggling against this “false” consciousness.


What would be the components of such an agenda?  Since I have been arguing that capitalist development in societies like ours, especially in its neo-liberal incarnation, leads to a social counter-revolution, the conclusion must be that a reversal of this counter-revolution requires a transcendence of neo-liberal capitalism.  And since neo-liberal capitalism is the shape that contemporary capitalism takes, and represents the highest form of the development of capitalism to date, it must mean a transition towards a social formation transcending capitalism itself.

I certainly hold this view, but I do not invite agreement on it from others.  Let me confine myself to a set of minimum steps on which I would invite general agreement that must be taken to reverse this tendency towards a social counter-revolution.  If these can be achieved within the capitalist system in our country, then so be it; if not, then the people can be united around them, to push the system, for achieving them, to a point where it can even be transcended.

Central to such an agenda must be the introduction of a set of universal justiciable rights for every citizen.  At the very minimum, these rights must include: the right to food, the right to employment, the right to free and quality healthcare, the right to free and quality education (at least up to school level), and the right to an appropriate amount of old age pension and benefits for the disabled and those unable to work.

It may be thought that this is what we have been introducing in this country anyway.  But that is erroneous.  We do not have a universal right to food or a universal right to employment (or a living unemployment allowance in its absence); we do not have a universal old age pension scheme of an appropriate amount; we do not have free public healthcare of quality; and we do not have free State-provided education through a set of neighbourhood schools of quality.  These are provisions that capitalism in several metropolitan centres had made in the post-war period, and, despite their progressive attenuation under the neo-liberal dispensation, they continue to survive in many of these countries.  In India we have never introduced such a general scheme of universal economic rights.

A universal scheme of rights, as distinct from targeted programmes for the poor, is devoid of any hint of “charity” and confers on the beneficiaries the dignity of being “citizens”; and it cannot be used for pitting one section of the people against another since everyone is entitled to these rights.  Such a scheme carries forward the creation of a terrain of “citizenship” transcending all caste, communal, gender and ethnic divides.  It carries forward India’s democratic revolution by fulfilling the promise made during the anti-colonial struggle and moving towards the realization of the dreams of the social emancipation struggle.

The question will be immediately asked: how can we finance such a scheme?  I believe that around 10 percent of the GDP would be required as additional funding for implementing such a programme.  India happens to have one of the lowest tax-GDP ratios among all the countries in the world, around 14 percent taking the centre and the states together.  Even if the entire programme is to be financed through the mobilisation of additional tax revenue, all it requires is that the tax-GDP ratio has to be raised to 24 percent, which is approximately the ratio in the United States.  In other words pushing up the tax-GDP ratio even to the level that prevails in the most powerful capitalist country in the world would be quite enough to bring about a fundamental change in the socio-economic landscape in the country.

There should, however, be no illusion that this would be achieved easily within a neo-liberal framework.  On the contrary, the introduction of such a programme would necessitate a whole series of other changes.  There would be, to start with, severe objections to such a programme from the corporate-financial oligarchy and from international finance capital with which it is closely integrated.  Since their displeasure will manifest itself in a capital flight out of the country, the imposition of capital controls will be necessary to free the country from the adverse fallout of this displeasure.

This in turn will necessitate, willy-nilly, the pursuit of an alternative development trajectory.  At least two features will be central to such an alternative trajectory: one, the use of the public sector and of the co-operative sector as a counterweight to private capital, so that State action is freed from the obsession to maintain the “animal spirits of the capitalists”; and two, an expansion of the home market, not just through the institution of the universal rights I have mentioned earlier, but additionally through a shift towards a more egalitarian income and asset distribution.

Land redistribution remains the crux of any programme of egalitarian asset redistribution, but it will have to be supplemented by progressive wealth taxation which at present is almost entirely absent in India.  Together with land redistribution, a re-engagement of the State with peasant agriculture in a supporting, protecting and promoting role, and the formation of cooperatives, including of agricultural workers, are essential.  This is because the development of the productive forces in agriculture and in rural India generally determines crucially the size of the home market and hence the size of the total output and the resources available to the State.

But we must not fall victims to the illusion that economic factors alone can overcome caste prejudice, caste consciousness and caste oppression.  To believe this is tantamount to recreating the earlier illusion that capitalism would automatically overcome the old caste-based social structure.  There has to be a conscious and direct assault on the inherited structure of social inequality which calls for a socio-cultural revolution (whose immediate aim inter alia must be the restraint of khap panchayats and the enforcement of individual freedom in choosing one’s spouse).  All progressive forces must join that revolution; but the institution of a set of universal economic rights is in my view a necessary condition for advancing such a socio-cultural revolution.

Prabhat Patnaik is a Marxist economist in India.  The text of this lecture was first published in People’s Democracy in two parts, on 21 and 28 September 2014; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.